Where can you buy some Texas?
I found myself asking that question recently, as I was scrolling through gardening content on social media and stumbled onto claims that a couple of seed packets and some soil will save stacks of cash from your grocery budget—as if you’re growing some modern-day victory garden or late Soviet dacha.
While alluring, the idea that you can save money by gardening is mostly a myth. Any experienced gardener will tell you that after building those raised beds, buying bags of soil, and stocking up on organic fertilizer, trellises, and cages—not to mention the opportunity cost of time, land, and skill—you’re more likely to end up with a $64 tomato than a thrifty cornucopia. If I wanted to squeeze profit from my yard, I’d be better off getting a permit for a granny flat and renting it to a Rice University grad student.
The real upside of gardening, besides the general enjoyment of a hobby, is that you can grow food that you can’t buy at the store. Only a gardener knows the taste of that delicate varietal of tomato that won’t survive the truck ride to H-E-B. Or maybe you sing the praises of a rare, pungent South Asian chile pepper not intended for mass consumption. Even a vegetable as ho-hum as broccoli has a striking verdancy when eaten fresh from the garden.
But lately, I’ve been planting something else that I can’t find at the store: Texas wildlife.
Before I planted a garden, my yard in Houston’s West University attracted the usual narrow cast of characters: squirrels, sparrows, and grackles. (Let’s face it, our grackles are nothing special.) Coyotes and jackrabbits are supposed to live deep in the heart of Texas, but I wasn’t seeing any. So how could I turn my garden into my own slice of Texas? I began growing native plants aimed at attracting butterflies, bees, and other wildlife.
I started with milkweed, a popular choice for beginners. That’s not because milkweed is particularly easy to grow, though it can be once it sets its deep roots, depending on the varietal. Rather, it is the only host plant for monarchs, and saving their famous transcontinental, multigenerational migration has become a popular cause. In fact, the campaign has been a victim of its own success, so much so that experts now recommend gardeners trim back their milkweed in late fall to encourage the orange-winged creatures to continue their flight south, rather than settle down here. Soon I’ll have to cut back my spindly bunches of tropical milkweed, trimming them from four feet tall to about six inches. I love seeing these plants, with their bright red and orange flowers, alongside the smaller aquatic milkweed with its stunning buds, so white they’re almost blue.
But that’s the easy part. More challenging has been keeping alive the Dutchman’s pipe vine twining up a trellised fence in a shadowy corner of my garden. Supposedly the trifoliate leaves will be interspersed with bulbous flowers that look something like a pitcher pot or, appropriately enough, a pipe. But to unsuspecting flies and other pollinators, the plant looks more like the attractively rotting ear of some rodent carcass, and apparently smells like one too. I wouldn’t know. So far, the vines have turned a shriveled brown during the persistent summer, leaving a small batch of green leaves hugging the hardwood mulch. I’m willing to put in the effort to save this plant because it is the host of the again appropriately named pipe-vine swallowtail, a large specimen that flashes a striking iridescent blue on the lower half of its otherwise black wings. It’s the sort of tropically colored creature I’d only expect to see after plopping down $44 to take my family of four to the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. And I want one in my garden. That’s why I’ve also added some more desert-friendly versions of the pipe vine hidden in the shade under my golden Dorsett apple tree and mandarin orange tree. Those species don’t spread across trellises the same way, but they do a better job of surviving the summer.
A once-petite senna plant has also exploded into a five-foot-tall bush, apparently thriving without rain or water, waiting for the attention of a cloudless sulphur butterfly, notable for its manically fluttery yellow wings. There’s also rue for more swallowtails, passion vine for the orange Gulf fritillary, and various phlox flowers, salvia, and lantanas to attract the pollinators and keep them well-fed. I haven’t taken the full step of transforming my entire front yard into a flowering prairie—with kids at home, their demands for bounce houses, Slip ’n Slides, and inflatable Halloween decorations take priority. But I’m doing what I can.
Still, I don’t see as many fluttering wings as I’d hope—and certainly nothing near the scenes I remember my grandmother describing from her youth in Houston. She grew up in Third Ward, back when it was a Jewish neighborhood, and once shared memories of running across wide-open fields, butterfly net in hand, surrounded by a cloud of color. That was back when the area around Rice University was some far-flung exurb. Now the monarch is an endangered species.
Sadly, this is nothing new for Texas. All across the state we’re losing our wildlife. The Texas horned lizard—the horned frog of TCU fame, a.k.a. the horny toad—is now threatened and has to be bred in zoos. The only place you’re likely to see the endangered Houston toad is in captivity. Even the American bumblebee is under threat.
So why aren’t people mad? Make a disparaging comment about Blue Bell ice cream and you’re likely to get a “Don’t Mess With Texas” response. But push the living mascots of our state to the brink and, well, that’s just the price of business.
Sometimes it feels like Texans care more about the Buc-ee’s beaver than the actual critters of our state. Our self-created image is more about the products we buy, and our passions are associated with brands rather than living things—even if, as in the case of Whataburger, some of those brands are owned by out-of-state investors.
So I’ve been trying to protect my own piece of Texas by ensuring my garden is a welcoming home to butterflies. There’s no coyotes wailing, but the sage in bloom really does smell like perfume. Bluebonnets are much more appealing when you don’t have to brave the passing eighteen-wheelers while squatting for pictures on some freeway median. And watching the squirrels scatter at the sight of a Cooper’s hawk circling overhead makes for an entertaining breakfast-time show. Even the wasps and spiders that hide in the crevices of the yard play an important role in the local food web, a fact that the Native Plant Society of Texas has emphasized in its Houston lectures.
Nobody should have any illusions about the limits of one yard. Harris County has lost 70 percent of its freshwater wetlands. Our sprawling metro region increased its urban footprint by 63 percent from 1997 to 2017, as Suzanne Simpson and John Williams write in Wild Houston. Every time we gain more Houston, we risk losing a bit of Texas. Legislative action will be needed if we want to emphasize more sustainable development and preserve the living things unique to Texas.
To lawmakers’ credit, this November we’ll get to vote on a new, $1 billion conservation fund to expand existing state parks and acquire new ones. Texans can push for more big changes like that one while also making small contributions of our own. I take pride in remembering the time when I had to explain to a door-to-door exterminator trying to sell his services that I wanted the bugs burrowed in my mulch and yard to survive and thrive, because they’re an important part of the food web. And I wanted the blue jays and anoles to be well-fed. After all, the creatures of Texas cannot live on beaver nuggets alone.